Diving is a sure way to experience the prehistoric beauty of Tayrona National Park on Colombia’s Caribbean coast from in, on and under the water.
The little boat chugged away from the heaving, sweating, tourist orgy that is Taganga, and headed for Tayrona National Park.
As it drew further away from the pulsating Reggaton soundtrack and the dread-locked hippies selling string bracelets and banging away in drum-circles, the water grew clearer and bluer. No longer was the sea floating full of used condoms and fish-heads, but was now that Caribbean shade that can only be described as “azul.”
Parque Tayrona is the gem of Colombia’s Caribbean coast, dazzling white beaches and clear coral-filled ocean are set against a Jurassic Park-style jungle, hung with vines and draped in damp mist, with flocks of pterodactyl-like pelicans laboriously flapping by.
Each week hordes of tourists visit Tayrona, which was declared a national park in 1969 for its immense biological and archaeological value. Visitors go there for the beaches with their white grainy sand and imposing grey boulders. They go to see the Tayrona tribes-people in their traditional pointy white hats, and they go to hike deep in to Tayrona’s jungle to find the Lost City, thought to have been founded around 800 AD.
I am not here for culture, hiking or beaches however, and as beautiful as the scenery is above ground, I want to see what it looks like underwater.
The little dive-boat cuts into an inlet in the rugged coastline. Here the water is flat in the shelter of the steep tree-covered mountains. The bay is deserted, there are no tourists, no fishermen, no hippies. Just the divers.
The dive shack is just that, a little kitchen and a lean-to for the toilet. Marine-biology students have taken up most of the hammocks swung under the grass-covered roof. They are growing a coral garden and spend their days underwater grooming their coral-shrubs with toothbrushes to clean off the harmful algae which can smother and kill it.
Immediately upon diving into the balmy Caribbean water the coral is impressive, the unbelievable existence of it, not mineral or vegetable, but animal. Innumerable invertebrate coral polyps all huddled in their protective calcium carbonate exoskeleton.
In their underwater Japanese garden the impossible colonies of polyps grow their gnarly bright branches millimeter by millimeter, year by year, twisting and stretching into little sub-marine trees.
Great hulking boulders of slimy patterned brain coral sit on the sandy ocean floor, they take hundreds of years to grow to this size.
Six lion fish hung suspended in a crevice of a rocky cliff, their long feathery plumes fluttering in the water. Strange and alien with their zebra stripes and long flowing fins, the poisonous fish is a plague on this coastline.
No one knows exactly how the lion fish, a native of the Pacific, ended up in the Caribbean, some theories are that they were freed from aquariums in Florida, or escaped into the sea when Hurricane Andrew destroyed a seafront aquarium in 1992, or perhaps they were dumped into the sea near the Panama Canal by big ocean going ships emptying ballast water which they had taken off the shores of Asia.
However it got here, it has certainly made itself at home. The first fish was reported in Tayrona in 2009, but on this dive alone we see more than 10.
The voracious lion fish can eat up to 12 fish per night, its stomach expanding up to 30 times its own size, feasting on the local fish who are easy prey as they don’t recognize it as a predator. A single one can reduce the number of fish in an area by 79% in five weeks.
The lavishly decorated species has invaded the Caribbean, eating its way through the unsuspecting local fish, feeding and multiplying in peace. In 2000 there were only a number of reported sightings off Florida but in 2009 there were sightings as far south as Venezuela and as far north as New York.
Lion fish are reportedly quite tasty and initiatives have been taken to try and encourage the locals to eat them, but I have never seen one on a plate.
The previous night was the once-a-year mass coral spawning when eggs and sperm from the coral are squeezed out in to the water, where they must find an opposite from their own species before being swept away.
This night the water was clear, free from the swirling clouds of gametes. The sea was teeming with life, a squid luminescent white and glowing slipped past, shoe-lobsters scuttled across the sandy floor and white glowing worms twirled through the water. A parrot-fish slept peacefully in its protective saliva bubble, which it makes presumably to hide its scent from predators and to warn it if one comes near.
The water was full of phosphorescence, luminescence emitted by blooming phytoplankton, and every movement sent little lights spinning off into the dark water. We surfaced from the dive into the inky blackness and absolute silence, the clear skies dusted with thousands of stars, and swam on our backs towards the shore, each kick of the flipper sending a fiesta of fairy lights off deep into the black water.
The dive company goes to Tayrona for Thursday, Friday and Saturday trips and divers can go for fun-dives or to complete a certificate course.